What is Quinoa? A Definition and Everything You Need to Know

Bowl of quinoa
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What is quinoa? While quinoa is usually considered to be a whole grain (similar to regular white rice, brown rice and other grains such as wheat and barley), it is actually a seed, but can be prepared like whole grains such as rice or barley. Try a quinoa salad recipe, or serve a vegetable stir-fry over cooked quinoa instead of rice. Or, if you're looking for a simple, high-protein breakfast idea, swap out your usual oatmeal for some quinoa flakes which cook just as quickly.


Quinoa is my favorite whole grain for three reasons:

  • First, it takes less time to cook than other whole grains and even cooks quicker than rice: Quinoa takes just 10 to 15 minutes to cook.
  • Second, quinoa tastes great on its own, unlike - in my opinion! - other whole grains such as millet or teff. Add a bit of olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice or a bit of garlic and - yum! Then, add a touch of nutritional yeast or Parmesan cheese and you've got yourself a meal. Or at least a side dish.
  • Finally, of all the whole grains, quinoa has the highest protein content, so it's perfect for vegetarians and vegans. Quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.
  • Need a fourth reason to love quinoa? Quinoa is a gluten-free and cholesterol-free whole food, is kosher for Passover, and is almost always organic.

Culinary ethnologists will be interested to know that quinoa was a staple food for thousands of years in the Andes region of South America as one of just a few crops the ancient Incas cultivated at such high altitude.

As such, quinoa is generally agreed to be an ancient grain, that is, it is cultivated the same way now that is was millennia ago.

See also: What are ancient grains?

How to Cook Quinoa

Quinoa is very easy to cook! You can prepare quinoa much like the way you would prepare rice. Cover it with water or vegetable broth and simmer it over medium heat until soft, about 15 minutes, giving it a couple quick stirs.

Or, place 1 part quinoa to 2 parts water in your rice cooker.

One of the most popular ways to prepare quinoa is to add some veggies and a dressing to make an easy quinoa salad. I also like to swap out white rice for quinoa alongside any kind of vegetable stir-fry and, one of my new favorite ways to make quinoa is just like you would make a fried rice dish - quinoa fried "rice"! And, did you know quinoa also makes a great hot breakfast cereal, similar to oatmeal? Here are 7 ways to eat quinoa for breakfast and more ways to cook quinoa, including what to do with leftover quinoa.

More Whole Grains to Try

Nutritional Content of Quinoa:

According to CalorieCount, 1/3 cup of cooked quinoa has 160 calories, 2.5 grams of fat, 3 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. For more about the nutritional value and why quinoa is such a great addition to your diet see here: Nutritional value of quinoa

Shopping for Quinoa 

Shop for quinoa in the bulk bins or the baking aisle of natural foods stores, or find it online. More and more grocers are stocking quinoa these days. Check the ethnic foods aisle (sometimes it's next to the couscous and barley) or you might find it near the rice and pasta.

What to Do with Quinoa and ​Quinoa Recipes:

But don't take my word for it! Give it a try! Use quinoa in just about any recipe calling for rice or another whole grain, such as rice salads, couscous recipes or pilafs. I like to keep some cooked quinoa on hand to toss into salads, and I'll often keep some ready to go in my freezer to add to just about anything I'm cooking. Add a handful of quinoa to your favorite soup recipe while it's simmering to give it a bit of protein, try it plain with a saucy vegetable stir-fry or, try out one of these healthy high-fiber quinoa recipes:

Pronunciation: KEEN-wah or KEE-nuh-wah